Category Archives: personal

Test Kitchen: Baking Pizza at Home

Spurred on by the realization that I haven’t cooked for a while, I’m making the effort to feed myself (and maybe my roommates) like an adult. Melissa’s #2 food is pizza, and I’m always down to make pizza.

I’ve stuck to a recipe my friend Grace gave me for pizza (Mark Bittman’s pizza dough) for almost five years now, but when I saw this pizza dough recipe in the New York Times, I had to try it out.

In the past, I’ve always used a hot oven and a sturdy baking sheet to make crisp pizza crusts, but I’ve been intrigued by the idea of a pizza stone or baking stone. It’s a slab of stone or ceramic that’s used in a regular oven to simulate a brick oven’s heat. You put it in a cold oven and preheat at your oven’s highest setting for about an hour, then surf the retained heat to make crisp pizza crusts and artisan breads for hours. The stone pulls moisture out of the dough, which crisps the crust to perfection.

My brother has a baking stone, and though it cracked pretty early on, he continued using it by pushing the cracked pieces together. Before I dropped $25-50 on my own that might just crack after a couple uses, I thought I’d see what the internet had to say on the matter.

There are webpages out there that have documented their own baking stone adventures. They offered the cheap alternative of finding unglazed quarry tiles from a hardware store. They come in 6″ and 12″ squares, usually at about $0.50-1.50 apiece, which is far less than you’d spend on a baking stone on Amazon.

So off I went to the hardware store. Lowes only had 8″ squares on special order, which would have meant buying about 100x more tiles than I could ever need, cracks or no. They were the same as I’d seen in a blog post, so I knew I was on the right track. I fared better at Home Depot, where they had Saltillo paver tiles — 12″ squares that looked like terra cotta — for $1.19 each. They’re a little over half an inch thick (14mm to be exact), which is about right for sticking in the oven. One of the posts I’d read had mentioned this brand, so it was with slightly more confidence that I bought two and didn’t think I’d poison people.

My Saltillo paver tiles in the oven
My Saltillo paver tiles in the oven

Supposedly it’s important to rinse and thoroughly dry the stones before using, though honestly I have no idea if that would’ve gotten rid of anything toxic on the surface. In my opinion, it’s more important not to use soap to clean them, as the porous surface will absorb the soap and your pizza will taste like soap.

I prepped the pizza dough last night — pretty simple recipe with minimal effort. The dough goes into the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. Today when I got home, I took the dough out of the fridge to warm up while I took a shower. Heat up the oven and the pizza stones, stretch out into pizza crust, and add sauce and toppings. I opted for nice and simple margherita pizzas using Roberta’s recipe in the NYT recipe.

Pizza into the oven, onto the baking stone
Pizza into the oven, onto the baking stone

The baking stone worked really well. The oven was HOT for a hot day like today (86 degrees — so Northern California hot, I guess), though the stones probably could have used another twenty minutes of preheating before I shut the heat off entirely. The pizza crust was nice and crisp on the edges, but the centers weren’t quite up to snuff (possibly because the stones weren’t hot enough in the centers either). All in all, the pizza was still delicious. I also haven’t died yet, so the tiles are a success!

Finished pizza
Finished pizza

Gardening!

I spent some time working in our garden this weekend. David Agus says gardening is good for your health — so into the yard I go.

I’ve been growing herbs and succulents since I moved out of my parents’ house, but my current place has a yard (and therefore expanded opportunities to grow things). This weekend, I planted three heirloom tomato plants in our little raised bed.

Heirloom tomatoes!
Heirloom tomatoes!

Hopefully they won’t get dug up and eaten like our ill-fated zucchini plants. That might have also been my fault or Melissa’s — neither of us really watered them. The zucchinis were planted with some little freesias (that also suffered from the under-watering) and an apricot tree (which seems to have survived the under-watering all right).

Poor little freesias...
Poor little freesias…

The original herbs are still doing decently. The mint, as predicted, has grown like crazy, so I’ve dedicated an entire planter box to its mojito-fueling, weedy madness. I’ve had to get a new basil plant every year, which I think is normal (it’s an annual, right?)… either that or I’m just a cruel gardener that lets my basil plant freeze to death every winter.

Foot for scale. There's also one little weed, but I thought the leaves were pretty and let it stay.
Foot for scale. There’s also one little weed, but I thought the leaves were pretty and let it stay.

As for the succulents… I have a succulent problem. My coworker Soquel suggested that I blog about it, but that’ll have to be its own post. For now, here’s a succulent that I bought this weekend because it was so weird looking. It’s hanging out in a pot with some of my other succulents that I’ve replanted.

Guess which one I bought out of pity.
Guess which one I bought out of pity.

That’s all from the garden this weekend. Fingers crossed I don’t forget about the tomatoes!

Lessons in Product (Week 1)

I’ve been emailing myself about once a week, reflecting on my new position in Product. I officially moved over on March 31, finally getting my own desk in the Product/Engineering area instead of stealing desks while people were in meetings or working from home. At least one engineer thought I’d just conned the previous person who had that spot into getting a standing desk and monitor — took him about two days to ask me if my conning included a title change. 😀

So some notes from week 1 in Product (with the caveat that I’m learning everything on the job, and Product here might be nothing like Product elsewhere).

Continue reading Lessons in Product (Week 1)

Jorb Changes

(As promised, an update on one of “a lot of things going on lately” in my life.)

I started a new job! After two years of customer support (or CS, as we call it — confusing as hell when CS has meant “computer science” to me for years), I have conned moved my way over to the Product team at 23andMe.

Before I dive into the details of how I got a new job, I’m going to give some completely unsolicited and minimally supported advice* on job dissatisfaction, career pathing, and creating opportunities:

  • First, realize when you’re not happy with your current place. It’s easy to get lost in the day to day and forget about the bigger picture.
  • Examine why you’re unhappy, and what parts of your job you still enjoy.
  • Make the most of any flexibility you have to do things you like to do that are valuable to the company (or on a smaller scale, to the project). For me at least, the more I enjoy what I’m doing, the better I am at it. This generates positive visibility and helps develop relationships with coworkers who will be your biggest supporters for a lateral move.
  • Ask for a change. If your manager doesn’t know that you want something different, they can’t help you get something different. If your manager is a good one (someone who’s invested in developing you as a person), they’ll be on your side.

*Admittedly, my parents (veterans of the corporate world and managers in their own right) bestowed a version of this advice upon me, backed by the wisdom of their experiences. So not completely unsupported advice, and hopefully sound.

If you’re reading between the lines up there, you can pretty much tell how things went down for me. Though the unhappiness started before last summer, last July was when I faced down my own frustration and essentially said, “Would I be happier if I were unemployed?” That led to new questions — if I’m going to leave, what else can I get out of this job in the next couple months? What keeps me going back instead of quitting right now? How do I make my job more of what I like, and less of what I don’t like? What do I want my job title/description to be a year from now, and what skills don’t I have right now that I’d need to be there?

Thanks to a strong working relationship with Engineering, I had some options for that last question. I credit my coworkers Cordell and Mat with persistently planting the idea in my mind of doing QA engineering or web development — without their encouragement that yes, they believed I could do it, I wouldn’t have talked it through with some/lots of people and brought the idea to my manager in November.

I don’t know what it is about my past relationships with mentors and bosses, but for some reason I was terrified of telling my manager, “Look. I don’t want to be on your team [forever].” Maybe it was because I’d never really had a career path conversation with anyone at the company besides my teammate-and-sometimes-workout-buddy. Maybe it’s the obedient Asian kid in me with a terrified respect for authority. (Who am I kidding? I’m the worst obedient Asian kid ever.) Maybe I was just terrified of my future, and of picking a path that closed off others.

In any case, my manager said, “GREAT let’s figure something out for you!” (paraphrasing wildly here.) Joy! Lightheartedness! Relief!

So that’s how that conversation that needed to happen outside of me got started. What I didn’t know for the next couple months was the entire Product and Engineering teams were restructuring and carving out a brave new world of project pods and throwing around words that they hoped didn’t mean something corny like synergy (but probably did). All I knew was my manager and I kept being puzzled that great conversations weren’t going anywhere.

Mid-March rolled around, and I was still chugging away in my weird, not-really-Customer-Care, morphed-beyond-recognition position in which I oversaw Customer Care agents, yet hung out with engineers all the time and berated them for creating bugs (but also stayed late with them testing their fixes… and eating their pizza). Then one afternoon, our VP of Engineering flagged me down.

He had a position carved out for me in QA. He thought it would be a great fit, and I’d jump in right away on some big projects leveraging my knowledge of the product and all our weird edge cases. I’d be the start of a larger, dedicated QA team, and still working with the engineers I’ve built relationships with in the last year.

This all sounded great to me, then he threw in the “but”: the VP of Product also wanted to know if I’d be interested in Product Management. A big difference from what I’d been gunning for, but not that far off from my goals after last summer’s thought exercise.

Both were available to me: QA Engineer or Product Manager — whichever I didn’t take, the company would hire for anyway. I talked to a lot of people about the choice between the two. The consensus was that both were great opportunities for me, both incorporated some form of how I was already spending my time, and both would put me in the middle of big, high-stakes projects for the company. QA would give me a leg up in the technical world if I played my cards right. PM would put me in a position to influence and make high-level decisions about our product. QA Engineers have more job security, PMs have more upward mobility.

Though I tried to ignore it for the sake of being objective, I was leaning towards PM from the start. Even if I became a full-fledged software engineer, I’d want to jump over to product eventually — it’s just how I’ve been taught to think: critically, creatively; relating the part to the whole, the case to the trend, and finding a solution.

I think it was the realization that 10 years down the line I want to be on a product team — that’s what made the decision easier. Plus, while the jobs are different on paper, the reality is I’m still doing both, and will be until someone’s hired and ramped up in two or three months. As an engineer finally summarized for me, it came down to a choice of formal titles and boss. Beyond that, the two would be the same.

So that’s the long (look, it could’ve been longer) story of how I joined the Product team at 23andMe! I’ve moved desks and everything. It’s a learning experience like everything else, and I’m excited for the projects and work ahead.

 

(I’m also rapidly realizing that months of not writing and not blogging makes for long, meandering, slightly incoherent blog posts. Sorry about that. It’ll get better… I hope.)

92nd Birthdays

My grandma turned 92 today. I think this means that, despite her somewhat poor health, she has lived longer than anyone in her family ever has.

My family celebrated today with a pretty average, low sodium, cooked-at-home lunch, followed by some cake. We bust out the Martinelli’s sparkling  cider for the occasion, which Grandma loves (but really, who doesn’t?). It was just her three surviving kids, her daughter-in-law, and awesome granddaughter (me, obviously — I’m the one who brought her cake). Simple times when Grandma can’t really get out of the house anymore.

It’s strange being around Grandma at this stage of her life. While I’m just starting to forge my own way into the world, she’s reached the end of her productive years. She’s not the most optimistic person in the world, and these days she latches on to the negative things that are happening to her (like… well, everything about aging). She’s frustrated with all the things she can’t do anymore. She obsesses over the missed opportunities from decades ago, and the people who prevented her from having them. Today, she didn’t even feel like smiling for the pictures, and she put up a big fight over taking her afternoon medications (though she does that every day).

So what does it mean to age well in the 21st century? Modern medicine has prolonged human life far beyond the average lifespan 92 years ago when Grandma was born. We can keep our loved ones alive, healthy, and relatively self-sufficient. With the chance for emergencies kept to a minimum, we can live comfortably beside them without as much worry and panic — but to what end?

My grandma can’t walk outside and enjoy the sunshine, her vegetable garden, or the birds flying by anymore. She can’t hear well enough to really listen to mealtime conversations, much less participate in them. She can’t cook for her children and grandchildren. Her eyes get tired when she reads. She’s bored of all the Chinese soap operas, kung-fu shows, and nature documentaries my dad dug up from the public library to have her watch. All she’s really doing now is waiting — dreading death and what might come next, but dreading each day in gradually equalling measure.

I suppose all we can do now is help her find pleasure in her simple days, as fleeting as it may be.

20140406-230605.jpg
And boy did she enjoy that cake!

“Lazy” Sundays and so-called “free time”

Gird yourselves. I’m trying to post regularly again…

It’s been a while since I’ve written a substantial blog post, a journal entry, or really much of anything (besides email, and even that… I finally forced myself to reply to a bunch of emails that have been sitting around in my inbox for ages). With so much of my personal identity revolving around writing, this is traumatizing to the extreme. It makes me feel like I’ve lost touch with myself, and I’m not wrong in feeling that. So here I am, metaphorical hat-in-hand, writing something.

I’ve had a lot of things going on lately that I’ll post about in detail in the coming days/weeks, but here’s what it boils down to: I was working too hard in a job I didn’t always enjoy, so I made it my New Year’s resolution to restore work-life balance.

It took a fair amount of effort to break away from my work habits, but I forced myself to turn inward. Not so much in an introspective way, but more in a self-care kind of way. I’m an introvert through and through (despite how it seems sometimes — need I go back to the “lone wolf complex”?), and it didn’t actually take much to rediscover the quiet hobbies to keep me occupied.

Let’s be clear though: I’m a workaholic. I love being busy. So the real difference was that I worked on things on my terms. Learning Python on Codecademy. Re-reading my favorite fantasy series (Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) as a form of genre research as I contemplate writing my own fantasy series. Making and carving soap.

So the little things got me to a point of learning how to make “free time” again, though that feels like a misnomer. I have “non-work time” now, and I’m starting to do things with it! More on that soon, but the accomplishment of the day was dusting off this blog, posting this, and getting myself excited to post some more.

(And in completely unrelated news, being an adult is terrifying. I’m solely responsible for the fact that I bought a pint of ice cream and a 11-oz. bag of Cool Ranch Doritos last night, and I’m pretty much done eating them both not 24 hours later.)

 

“Doing things” progress report

It’s only been nearly 4 months since I posted a to-do list. Time to see how I’ve been doing…

Read a book
Actually, I read several. I  finally got around to finishing Skip Horack’s short story collection that I borrowed from Jaslyn ages ago, then started impulse-buying books on Amazon just to get myself to read again. Given how little I liked most of these, I’m going to go with Jaslyn’s recommendations from now on. Quick reviews:

  • Southern Cross (short stories by Skip Horack)
    Highly recommended. I might be biased because he was one of my fiction writing instructors, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.
  • The Fault in Our Stars (young adult fiction by John Green)
    Ugh. Touching, but only if you can get over the fact that it’s narrated by an annoyingly self-important high school girl.
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (novel by John LeCarré)
    Slow, considering this is supposed to be a suspenseful spy novel. I liked it once it got going, but it took a while to get there. I also watched the movie after reading the book. Maybe it made less sense than the book because I was busy playing Candy Crush the whole time, or maybe movie-going audiences came out of that movie super confused. Hard to say.
  • One Day (novel by David Nicholls)
    This was one drawn out chick flick in novel form. Good girl falls for bad boy, bad boy inevitably breaks good girl’s heart, and way down the line bad boy is changed by good girl. The overdone storyline that keeps every girl falling for jackass guys. Ugh. But hey, they did make it into a chick flick.
  • Divergent (young adult fiction by Veronica Roth)
    Maybe it’s my abiding love for young adult scifi, but I really liked this one. While also the start of a dystopian young adult series like Hunger Games (I’ve got a draft of a review somewhere in my old files), it’s better written than Hunger Games, the main character evolves in such a cool way, and THERE’S NO LOVE TRIANGLE. What more could you ask for?

Write a short story
Nope. I’ll get to this… eventually.

Write some code
Nope… unless reading engineers’ commits at work counts.

Paint some abstract things
Forgot about this one! It’s time to hit up the craft store.

Climb some rocks
Indeed! Well, indoor rock climbing walls, and I clambered up a rock memorial on a hike the other weekend. I have to do more of this though, since it’s not worth having a climbing gym membership if I’m not going.

Take some pictures
Some miscellaneous photos taken with my phone. Time to relearn how to use the dSLR…

 

That’s all for now! Time for some writing and some more reading.

Doing things

I suppose finishing two community college classes is as good a time as any to revisit the hobbies I haven’t had time to do in a while. Revisit hobbies and, well, socialize.

Some planned activities:
(Hopefully by committing these to digital paper, I’ll actually do some of them…)

  • Read a book
  • Write a short story (mostly because I haven’t written anything in a while, and tackling novels again is scary)
  • Write some code
  • Paint some abstract things
  • Climb some rocks
  • Take some pictures

Time for some doing.

Life lately

The more stressed I get, the easier it is for a stranger to figure me out. I live my life feeding on complexity, on multidimensionality, on excelling at disparate things that are invisible to a passerby.

But when I’m studying for the MCAT, I inhabit a single identity. All those other versions of me fall away, and everyone in my vicinity instantly (and correctly) judges me. I am the ambitious premed, living and breathing physics/chemistry/biology all day, every day. I’m the tireless entity that absorbs massive prep books with my lattes in coffee shops. I am grubbing for every extra point. I scorn all pursuits and past times that don’t incorporate the 5+ hour exam that consumes my life.

I don’t know which is scarier: that I’ve become this single-minded person, or that I’ve embraced it.